The Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad (C&O) Russell YMCA provided overnight lodging, baths, meeting space, and other accommodations for railroad workers in Russell, Kentucky.
Until the advent of the C&O, Russell was a small community along the Ohio River between Greenup and Ashland. At Russell, the C&O constructed the world’s largest railyard, which mostly handled coal that was mined from southeast Kentucky and southwest West Virginia. 6 The town flourished, with its population increasing from 175 in 1880 to 743 by 1900 and 1,758 by 1920
The C&O, like most other railroads, partnered with local YMCA’s to provide overnight lodging, baths, meeting space, and other accommodations for railroad workers. 6 The first YMCA, a simple two-story frame structure, 7 was finished in 1896. 6 By the early 1900s, the building was renovated and enlarged into a three-story Victorian. Another addition came in the 1920s.
There were 384 members at the Russell YMCA by 1906, and 440 railroad workers used the YMCA’s facilities on an average day. 8 The YMCA also offered general education and Bible instruction. By 1919, there were 557 members, making it the third largest railroad YMCA in the state, only behind The Louisville & Nashville Railroad’s (L&N) YMCA in Corbin and Louisville. 10
During the mid-1920s, the YMCA’s role expanded to not only include programs for the railroad workers but the local community. A playground on the Russell YMCA grounds was added by local YMCA Secretary Arch Morgan, which included a tennis court, croquet court, and swimming pool. A baseball field was graded. 13
By 1927, the YMCA had a membership of 2,025 railroad members, making it the largest railroad YMCA in the state. 14 It had become apparent that the three-story Victorian and annex was far too small. The Russell Times newspaper in 1942 clamored for a bigger, more modern YMCA. 15
In response to overcrowding conditions at the old YMCA, the C&O funded a new $1 million facility in 1948. It was the only one the C&O built after World War II. 5 16 The new complex included amenities such as a bowling alley, gymnasium, auditorium, barber shop, restaurant, meeting rooms, library, and sleeping rooms. For workers of the C&O, there were 142 beds and laundry.
The C&O began to switch to diesel engines for its locomotives instead of labor-intensive steam engines during the 1950s, which meant fewer stops for refueling and layovers by railroad workers, conductors, and engineers. A 1974 article in the Russell Times noted that the YMCA was in excellent condition and that the railyard was still the largest in the country that was operated by one railroad. 17 The yard handled the arrival and departure of 24 trains, four turns, and 1,000 car movements per day.
By 1984, the C&O had merged with the L&N, among other lines, which eventually became part CSX Transportation (CSX). CSX withdrew its financial support to the YMCA due to the mechanization of labor which reduced the Russell railyard’s workforce. 18 The YMCA closed in 1992. 2
In the 2000s, the abandoned YMCA was acquired by Lucasville, Ohio resident Kay Renolds for $35,000 at auction. 2 3 4 The building was then purchased by Russell YMCA, LLC, a new entity primarily owned by Louisville resident George T. Breathitt, in December 2002. 2 4 Breathitt proposed to renovate the complex into a 47-unit independent living facility for the elderly at the cost of $4 million. 2 4 Breathitt sought state tax credits as part of the financing package. Work was scheduled to begin in 2003, but a lack of state tax credits led Breathitt to abandon the project. 3
The YMCA was sold for $16,000 to Assets Investment Company of San Jose, California in July 2018. 19